US robot carrier-jet contract announced
Top Gun soundtrack remix: Take my job away ...
The US Navy has finally chosen a builder for its new robot carrier plane demonstrator, awarding a $635m contract to Northrop Grumman.
Northrop, partnered with Lockheed, is expected to develop its existing X-47 drone for this purpose. This is an almost 20 tonne, 60-foot-wingspan stealth jet which will offer 3,500 nautical miles of range without inflight refuelling: double that of normal carrier aircraft.
The current Navy programme doesn't call for weapons to be carried, being intended merely to demonstrate that unmanned planes can operate from carriers, but the X-47 could carry ordnance with very little effort should the Navy ask.
Take my job away... worrying days for navy pilots and their fans
Will the admirals ask, though? The USN is first and foremost a carrier navy, doubly so in these post-Cold-War days when an aircraft carrier is often the only relevant ship in a fleet, unless you want to get into cruise missiles. But armed forces are actually organisations of people, not technology, and the US Navy carrier culture is driven by the heroic - almost legendary - status of naval pilots in America.
Maverick would hardly have taken Kelly McGillis' breath away in Top Gun if his job had been programming flying robots. Richard Gere was supposed to be lifting Debra Winger up where she belonged in Officer and a Gentleman, not offering her a life on a tech campus. George Bush famously chose to pose for the media in a flightsuit on a carrier deck, not with a shirt pocket full of pens in the Las Vegas facility where the Predator drone pilots work.
The thing that makes carrier pilots special among their flying brethren - the reason why one hears it said, navy wings are gold and air force wings are lead - isn't air-to-air combat. That's probably a matter nowadays of press-button long-range missiles on those very rare occasions it occurs. You don't get much kudos, either, from the unglamorous business of airfreighting automated precision weapons to ground targets which can't answer back - "tank-plinking" as it was disparagingly known in the battles of 1991 and 2003.
Carrier pilots are special because they do arrested deck landings, one of the most difficult and dangerous aviation feats and almost the only one yet to be automated. A US navy pilot's most important statistic is how many arrested landings he has done at sea - how many "traps", with night-time and bad weather traps being a particular test of piloting mettle. But, to be honest, automating deck landing is only a matter of time and money. The money's now appeared; and this looks like the time.
As aviation analyst Bill Sweetman put it on the Ares blog at Aviation Week a little while ago:
"[Carrier drone] technology makes a night trap about as heroic as reprogramming the TiVo, and the [contract] winner will have the unenviable job of selling that fact to the Top Guns."
Will US admirals whose sense of self-worth is largely rooted around their trap numbers really take this programme beyond the demonstrator stage? US airforce generals who count their manhood in flight hours have conspicuously failed to do so with an equivalent land-based project. It took the CIA to jumpstart the Predator/Reaper flying kill-bot programme, by using a drone to blow away an al-Qaeda bigwig in 2002.
Interesting times, these, for pilots of every sort. ®
@Actually, autoland exists
"because you look like such a fool if you turn it on and it crashes your plane",
not half as much of a prat as you look when you f*ck up a landing that the plane could have done by itself.
See here the difference between British pragmatism and American ego.
Brit: "It should work, If I don't use it and I crash, that's my fault, if I use it and IT crashes it's someone elses fault."
Yank: "If I don't use it (and IF don't crash) everyone will think my cock's bigger, and that's far more important than my or anyone elses safety"
Couple more thoughts
Taking over remote control probably isn't easy - I am sure it's encrypted and probably more... But jamming them by overloading the sensors and sending garbage signals is a distinct possibility...
Another interesting point here is that it makes it very easy to mask the source of the bombs. Capture a soldier or bomber or agent and it is not that hard to find out which country he is working for. Send remote control bombers against a target and even if you shoot one down no-one can tell who sent it (once they become more common, that is..).
And when NGOs are able to produce them, we are in deep doo-doo. Suicide bombers are a problem, but remote controled kamikaze planes without a pilot are much worse...
Latency, and politics
I was anticipating something more autonomous than "fly by radio" remote control. I had in mind something that incorporated the sort of terrain recognition ability of a quality cruise missile into a reusable weapons platform.
For attacking buildings & infrastructure & fairly easily identified things like armour and automobiles, this would seem to be the way to go.
My main objection, not well stated above, is that such weapons remove pretty much any reason for domestic political opposition to a war - officially declared or unofficially declared. The only time (so it seems to me) most countries start to seriously object to fighting a war is when the cost in lives or gold rises too high.
Robotic weapons remove the variable of dead military personnel, and I do not believe the US economy would much notice production of these things (what do current stealth bombers cost anyway?)
Therefore these weapons become very very easy to use. As such they constitute as much a political change vis a vis war as they do a military one.
The point that countries do not surrender to air forces has some truth, but it is only relevant if the goal of a war is to force a surrender. Students of history know well that war and military force has often been used to force economic concessions (examples: China vs gunboat diplomacy from Europe initially and then later also the USA & Japan, from about 1800 to 1945; Japan vs the USA and US gun boat diplomacy opening Japan to foreign mostly US trade; the development of the British Empire in India; ...go read all about it). You don't need to win to dominate, control and extract profits from a target.
This kind of weaponry is perfect for gunboat (if you will) diplomacy: no political cost at home, quite possible to use without even informing the domestic polity, terrifying and largely unanswerable militarily force to the target country. I gotta ask, what else would you want to use this tech for?
And, it's not that I think the USA gov't is especially vulnerable to the temptation these would represent: Canada, if we had 'em, would behave badly too, as would most countries. But, well, it seems the US is the country most interested in acquiring the tech, so it got the heat.
The Reg is nominally a tech rag, so I will shut up now.